In tragedy, the plot is propelled by a hamartia—the flaw of the protagonist that causes subsequent events. The protagonist of The Geranium Woman suffers such a flaw, which consists of her naïvely in falling for something analogous to Mornington Crescent. Popularised in Britain by the radio show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, it's a game in which you move between locations on the London Underground to arrive at the eponymous Northern Line station. As you play, you challenge the ‘legality’ of other players’ moves, debating an increasingly baroque rule-system invented along the way. It’s an in-joke and farce—one with no adherence to a system of actual rules. Hazel’s hero, newly a CEO in Paris, is unaware of the Mornington Crescent in-joke of her company’s corporate ethics and the other hypocrisies of many of her interactions. She attempts to play, hoping to reform the hyper-masculine world of business and shareholders as well as navigate open and undefined relationships, within the loose strictures and conventions that secretly oppose her values. She does so against the backdrop of her father’s recent death and the implied existential, memento mori revelation of her own mortality—with shorter chapters giving us moments of his deathbed reflections.
At its heart, The Geranium Woman is a book about the good life, a novel querying the proper shape of a life and how to balance the demands of an often-dysfunctional society (with parental expectations, the ethics of work, the imbalances of so much romance, misogyny) with the fundamental human need for happiness. It moves towards a revelatory resolution that is all the cleverer for not being encapsulated in a single, perfunctory epiphany, but developed over the course of the narrative. And in doing so, there is a deeper understanding of how narrative functions as a way to meaningfully organise experience. It is a philosophical novel, not because it preaches a metaphysical system or didactically moralises, but because it diagnoses ills with the rich, fruitful imprecision of fiction and challenges the reader to introspect. It is also wonderful literature; deftly evoking Paris in its architecture and mood, capturing moments of calm and discomfort with equal aplomb, every page and chapter a delight. In much of the story’s quiet intensity and restraint, there is to be found a push towards truth and meaning that is lacking in the everyday.
The Geranium Woman by Hazel Manuel is available from Cinnamon Press and Amazon; it would make a great winter read.